Articles By Matt Taliaferro

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Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-11-kevin-harvick
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2011 Driver Countdown

No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Gil Martin

Years with current team: 11
Under contract through: 2012+
Best points finish: 3rd (2010)

Hometown: Bakersfield, Calif.
Born: December 8, 1975


2011 Spin
The second race of 2011 will mark Kevin Harvick’s 10th anniversary in the seat of the No. 29 at Richard Childress Racing. Harvick was a 25-year-old star in the making in 2001, slated to run the then-Busch Series while learning under the tutelage of men like Dale Earnhardt. The future was unclear for a relative unknown who was never expected to carry the weight of a team on his back.

Harvick was forced into the big leagues in only the season’s second week, though, following the death of Earnhardt, and shocked NASCAR Nation with two victories and a ninth-place points finish.

Now, 10 years later, Harvick retains that role of overachiever, going from the brink of divorce with RCR to championship threat after winning the regular season points title and posting arguably the best all-around season of his career.

The question as 2011 dawns is whether the team he works for still believes in a man whose biting criticism left a lasting impression during the Chase campaign. Ditching his pit crew five races into the postseason, the driver nicknamed “Happy” raised hell over their performance, even going out of his way at Homestead, when asked what he’d do different in the Chase, to proclaim, “I would take the first five (Chase races) back with the pit crew that I had the last five.” That over-the-wall group will stay with Clint Bowyer this year, but everyone has to scratch their heads over Harvick’s often aggressive, Bob Knight-style of putting people in their place through the media and over the team’s radio.

Keep in mind — this driver was shopping Shell/Pennzoil around to other teams, ready to bolt before the sponsor’s April bombshell signing with Penske Racing left him forced to re-sign at RCR. In public, Harvick and Childress say all the right things, although in private their relationship, once deemed irreparable in ’09, remains strained at times. Any hint of a struggle will rip the band-aid off these connections, damage healed only by the joys of on-track success and not personal apology. Crew chief Gil Martin is an expert at handling Harvick’s moody moments, but this team remains a powder keg with a driver unafraid to light the fuse at any time.

On the plus side, Harvick’s passion can be a good thing. The man wants to win so badly you can feel it, and when he channels that passion into driving, he can be unstoppable. With that emotional edge, keeping the consistency found in 2010 will be the No. 29 team’s biggest challenge. Harvick has always been streaky, either a title contender or an also-ran, and he needs to prove he can pick up the pieces of what could have (maybe should have) been his championship season in 2010.

Qualifying continues to be this veteran’s Achilles heel, with two poles in 2010 tempered by 15 starts of 26th or worse. Week in and week out, that’s an awful lot of cars for a driver to pass to get to the front, and it might have made the difference in a Chase competition defined by track position.

The other question mark for the year is sponsorship. When Shell/Pennzoil defected, Childress picked up Budweiser in a multi-year deal, but the long-time NASCAR supporter’s funding is only for 20 races. Jimmy Johns, a longtime sponsor of Harvick’s Nationwide Series cars, will pick up the tab for six additional events, but that leaves 10 with no sponsor on the hood. RCR likely will find the decals to fill the space, but the uncertainty threatens to cause a distraction.

At least this much is known: Childress will not let this team go down in flames. Lest anyone forget its heritage, the small number 3 on the door is an instant reminder of six championships won with Earnhardt. Childress would like nothing more than for this car to return to its former glory. RCR equipment is durable, and Earnhardt-Childress engines have been the gold standard in terms of Cup Series horsepower over the last year.

It’s hard to shake Harvick’s inconsistencies, though, and it’s important to note that he has never put together back-to-back top-5 points finishes. With a volatile personality, 2011 has a feast-or-famine look to it, although even in a worst-case scenario it’s hard to see last year’s regular-season points champion missing the Chase.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Harvick has the style of a champion, or at least a champion back before the Chase was implemented in 2004. “Harvick was always the same, from the start of the season to the finish,” says one prominent observer. “He got the best out of the car and brought it home in one piece.”

Adds a rival crew chief, “You know, I think he’s still trying to find his place in NASCAR. There are times when it almost looks like he sees himself as ‘the enforcer’ of the sport. His style earns the respect of some and the alienation of others. But his numbers and his personality don’t match up. He gets in a lot of scraps, but he always manages to get a decent finish anyway. That’s hard to do.”

Another crew chief says, “Kevin’s one of those guys whose personality and numbers don’t mesh. He seems to get in a lot of scraps, but he’s got that knack to work through them and still get a good finish.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: After some lean years, Harvick has become quite the plate racer.
Pretty Solid Pick: Lots of places, but especially Indy, where he has seven top 10s in 10 starts.
Good Sleeper Pick: His 7.9-place average at Homestead is his best, although he has no wins there.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: He’s got an all-star win, but otherwise it’s been pretty ugly at Charlotte.
Insider Tip: Clicked off top 10s even at tracks where he traditionally underperformed in 2010. A good play most weeks.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 3
Top 5s: 16
Top 10s: 26
Poles: 2
Laps Led: 357
Laps Completed: 10,645
Lead Lap Finishes: 32
Bonus Points: 90
Races Led: 16
Average Start: 21.0
Average Finish: 8.7
After First 26 Races: 3rd
Final Points Standing: 3rd
Driver Rating: 98.0 (4th)
 

Teaser:
<p> Kevin Harvick finished third in last season's Chase, but slips to 11th in Athlon Sports' 2011 Top 30 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Friday, February 4, 2011 - 17:32
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-12-denny-hamlin
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2011 Driver Countdown

No. 11 FedEx Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Mike Ford

Years with current team: 7
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 2nd (2010)

Hometown: Chesterfield, Va.
Born: November 11, 1980


2011 Spin
Sometimes, stats can be deceiving when assessing a driver’s mental state of mind. After a season when your win total equaled the number you had in the previous five years combined, finishing a career-best second in the standings, how would you remember it? On paper, it seems like a reason to throw a party all the way through that speech at the banquet in Las Vegas.

But for Denny Hamlin, he spent that night looking longingly at the head table, shaking his head while lamenting a championship that slipped away. It’s the type of disappointing second-place Chase result that sticks with you, attributable to poor fuel mileage, nerves and poorly timed trash talk. Following his eighth win of the season at Texas, Hamlin took the point lead with just two races left but saw a decision to pit for gas a week later come back to bite him, dropping from second to a 12th-place finish at Phoenix while Jimmie Johnson wound up fifth without stopping. Then, a dismal qualifying effort put him behind the eight ball from the get-go at Homestead, as a week’s worth of verbal pressure in the media from rivals Johnson and Kevin Harvick eventually took their toll.

“I’ll be honest with you, I was not nervous at any point until about an hour before the race,” he said afterwards. “That’s really when it hit me.”

Ninety minutes later, he was spinning off of Greg Biffle’s No. 16 car, and his Chase bid was sinking in the Florida swamp. He left Homestead without the big trophy but armed with plenty of questions about whether or not this team could mount another run at the title in 2011 after wiping out a season’s worth of smiles in one fell swoop. Despite a comeback driver of the year performance, when he recovered from ACL surgery in late March to establish numbers that set the standard at Joe Gibbs Racing, Hamlin’s development from occasional contender to weekly threat to reach Victory Lane means little if momentum has truly died on the vine.

That’s where the last in a trio of poorly timed missteps threatens Hamlin the most for 2011. Crew chief Mike Ford took some swipes at the Chad Knaus-led No. 48 team after Hamlin’s Texas win, knocking a decision from afar on how Hendrick Motorsports swapped pit crews mid-race. Team members at HMS publicly and privately claimed that the comments led to internal motivation, a waking-the-sleeping-giant moment that helped beat back the challenge of the No. 11 for good. Combine that with some ugly quotes from the driver after Phoenix — “I can save fuel pretty well, I did my job” — and his relationship with Ford could become an intriguing subplot this spring. The men aren’t friends off the track, lacking the type of deep bond that typically keeps the Johnson/Knaus type of relationship rolling through thick and thin, and Hamlin knows how much those poor decisions killed their title effort.

Another reason that a repeat run is unlikely is the emotional toll the Chase took on Hamlin himself. Still young, entering only his sixth full-time series of Cup competition, he may not have the experience and maturity to bounce back after such a cruel letdown. Long known for being a driver who thinks with his heart, Hamlin had learned to use his head until the fuel mileage folly seemed to throw his confidence for a loop.

“I have to leave Phoenix in Phoenix,” Hamlin said then, although he later admitted he had not. “That’s the thing is you can’t let this … I couldn’t control it. Things didn’t work out for me. I felt like we’ve been the best car over this Chase, and we might not win it.”

That they didn’t says a lot about the 30-year-old’s psyche, a second-place hangover likely to continue, a la Carl Edwards, who had a similar season (nine wins, runner-up points finish in ’08) turn into a winless disaster in ’09. And notice that Hamlin says things “didn’t work out for me.” Not the team, but “me.” Winning in the Sprint Cup Series takes a team effort. No driver, no matter how talented, can do it alone. That’s why 2011 is setting up as a likely down year for the No. 11 team, one in which they’ll need to mature and grow together again before making another serious title run.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

How did Hamlin fall short in the 2010 Chase? “I think (crew chief) Mike Ford did exactly what Chad Knaus did in 2005, the year before Jimmie Johnson’s streak started,” says one rival crew chief. “They were putting their best stuff back and saving it for the Chase all the way back to the spring. I think Ford studied Knaus and tried to peak for the Chase just like Johnson does every year. Hamlin just couldn’t execute the plan as well as Johnson, that’s all.”

Another crew chief adds, “That’s OK, though. They’ll be better prepared the next time around. Hamlin’s just coming into his own. He’s going to get better. Johnson probably isn’t. How could he?”

“I don’t know whether or not Hamlin won over everybody else, but he certainly proved himself to me,” says a team owner. “He showed a lot of guts driving while he was hurt, recovering from knee surgery, and the fact that he didn’t quite win the championship? As far as I’m concerned, he just lost a coin flip. It could’ve gone either way.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Martinsville and Pocono. Book ’em.
Pretty Solid Pick: The Virginia Ham-lin always steps it up at home in Richmond.
Good Sleeper Pick: Hard to consider Hamlin a sleeper anywhere these days.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Has not been a huge threat on the plate tracks, but you know how that can change when the right guy sticks to your bumper.
Insider Tip: He’s recorded a top-5 finish at every track on the circuit in his short career. That should tell you something.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 8
Top 5s: 14
Top 10s: 18
Poles: 2
Laps Led: 1,184
Laps Completed: 10,530
Lead Lap Finishes: 29
Bonus Points: 125
Races Led: 20
Average Start: 17.2
Average Finish: 12.9
After First 26 Races: 1st
Final Points Standing: 2nd
Driver Rating: 96.2 (5th)
 

Teaser:
<p> Denny Hamlin gave Jimmie Johnson a run for his Chase money in 2010, but tumbles to 12th in Athlon Sports' 2011 Preseason Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Friday, February 4, 2011 - 17:29
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-13-jamie-mcmurray
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 1 Bass Pro Shops/McDonald’s Chevrolet
Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Owner: Chip Ganassi/Teresa Earnhardt
Crew Chief: Kevin “Bono” Manion

Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2012+
Best points finish: 11th (2004)

Hometown: Joplin, Mo.
Born: June 3, 1976


2011 Spin
During his last two years at Roush Fenway Racing, Jamie McMurray was labeled little more than a lame duck, his career swimming straight into a lake of near irrelevance. However, in his first year back with Chip Ganassi, the Missouri native flourished, claiming victories in two of NASCAR’s biggest races: the season-opening Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400.

The owner’s gamble to re-hire McMurray and give him a second chance after the duo had parted ways following the 2005 season paid off with a year that landed both men in the history books. Ganassi became the lone team owner to win those races and the Indianapolis 500 in the same year (and later the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona), while McMurray is only the third driver to earn the two biggest NASCAR trophies. And, somewhat overlooked but notable nonetheless, McMurray chipped in runner-up showings at Talladega, in the Southern 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and a third in the Bristol Night Race, proving he and the team were able to step up on the sport’s biggest stages.

“If you were to ask me at the beginning of the season: ‘You could make the Chase or you could win these two races,’ I would have chosen these two,” McMurray said last August, a telling indictment on his lack of consistency. Each victory — including a third triumph at Charlotte in the fall — was followed up with a run outside the top 10, a troubling roller coaster defining a points season that ended with his No. 1 ride outside of the Chase in 14th.

Perhaps it was that sort of up and down result that had rumors swirling that Ganassi was considering a switch from Chevy to Ford. Clearly, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing isn’t at the top of the GM food chain; that distinction belongs to teams like Hendrick, Stewart-Haas and Richard Childress Racing. But speculation was put to bed by the end of last season when the announcement was made that ECR was staying with the bowtie boys, an IndyCar partnership in 2012 helping sweeten the deal in order to keep this program in the fold.

Now, the key is to minimize bad days, with McMurray hoping to build on an 18-race streak without a DNF as a sign the organization is over some mechanical and handling miscalculations week-to-week. By Daytona, this team will have achieved much-needed, long-term stability elsewhere. McMurray, as well as sponsors Bass Pro Shops, McDonald’s and others, shored up deals that will keep them with EGR long term. Crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion will be back on the pit box calling the shots, the second half of an extrovert/introvert duo that has the most surprising chemistry on and off the track of any driver/crew chief set. That familiarity will only pay dividends, especially now that McMurray is no longer having to wait for the other shoe to drop like he did at Roush Fenway. The only worry is to keep the adrenaline up this spring; it’s always tricky to avoid a short-term letdown when everyone goes from a possible pink slip to long-term job security.

The decision to stay with Chevy may or may not pan out. EGR may be a bigger fish in the IndyCar pond but remains a relatively small fish in the stock car ranks as a two-car team. There is also the at-times tumultuous relationship with teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, who certainly didn’t have the type of season he was looking forward to after making the Chase the year before. The former top-level Formula One driver struggled to work together with his overachieving teammate at times last season, but over the long run, they have to find a way to make an awkward marriage work.

So expect McMurray and Co. to be good for another win or two this year, but the trendy pick to make the Chase remains a tricky proposition. There are too many multi-car machines double the size — Gibbs, Hendrick and Childress to name a few — with drivers willing to share information and success all the way into the 10-race playoff.

However, considering the big, flashy wins this team thrives on, will another couple of clutch performances in Victory Lane leave them thinking 2011 was a bad year?
Probably not.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

McMurray clearly has paid his dues and won the respect of most in the garage area. “What a fantastic season,” says one rival crew chief. “McMurray won all the big races. Yeah, sure, he lacks consistency, but that’s still a new program. Jamie went over there and made a huge improvement in that car.”

Another crew chief says, “If you’re not going to make the Chase, that’s certainly the way to do it. He’s earning the big paychecks in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard.”

A third crew chief says, “I think hard times were good for Jamie. When he went through the lean years, I think he learned to appreciate how important it was to be good to those around you. Ever notice how happy his former teammates at Roush (Fenway) are when he wins? That says a lot for him.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: He’s becoming a pied piper of sorts at Daytona and Talladega.
Pretty Solid Pick: Hard to ignore last season’s first- and second-place runs at Charlotte.
Good Sleeper Pick: Third in last year’s Bristol Night Race?! Who saw that coming?
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Atlanta, Pocono and Richmond — totally different tracks that share the same anti-McMurray trait.
Insider Tip: Last year was great, but don’t expect another three-win gem out of this bunch — although another plate win is certainly a possibility.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 3
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 12
Poles: 4
Laps Led: 346
Laps Completed: 10,603
Lead Lap Finishes: 24
Bonus Points: 75
Races Led: 15
Average Start: 13.4
Average Finish: 16.4
After First 26 Races: 14th
Final Points Standing: 14th
Driver Rating: 86.5 (13th)
 

Teaser:
<p> Jamie McMurray rides a wave of momentum into the 2011, where he places 13th in Athlon Sports' Top 30 Drvier Countdown.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 3, 2011 - 10:16
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-14-dale-earnhardt-jr
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Steve Letarte

Years with current team: 4
Under contract through: 2012
Best points finish: 3rd (2003)

Hometown: Kannapolis, N.C.
Born: October 10, 1974


2011 Spin
Something has to give. NASCAR’s perpetual Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has endured three years of mediocrity with the sport’s best team, putting his future in question. With finishes of 25th and 21st in points over the last two seasons, the glory of 18 career victories has faded as some question whether The Intimidator’s son even has the talent to run inside the top 10.

Earnhardt is something of an enigma at Hendrick Motorsports, his tenure defined by flashes of brilliance while looking like he’s in over his head far too often. But he’s not simply the spoiled son of a legend as some now believe. Mediocre drivers don’t achieve top-5 points finishes (three), Daytona 500 victories (one), and over 1,000 laps led in three straight seasons. Earnhardt was once one of the best restrictor plate drivers in the business, putting on clinics on how to drive at Daytona and Talladega, and the stats show success on just about every type of track NASCAR has to offer, sans road courses. Clearly, the talent is there; the driver is just no longer connecting to it.

After an ugly ending to 2010, when Earnhardt’s confidence once again dipped considerably, team owner Rick Hendrick knew more major changes were needed. So out went crew chief Lance McGrew, part of a swap among three teams that saw Earnhardt land with Steve Letarte. Calling Letarte his “people person,” Hendrick thinks the duo’s laid-back personas could prove the perfect fit.

“Letarte and Junior have a relationship. I’m not sure if it’s from online racing or fantasy football,” Hendrick joked last fall before turning serious. “Junior has lot of respect for Steve, and Steve has a lot of insight on Junior because he’s mentioned it to me a couple of times in debriefs. I feel like Dale needs a guy he can communicate with, who has a proven track record and a really great team. (Letarte) knows how to get close to people.”

Getting close to Junior is the ultimate challenge. He can be difficult to communicate with even in the best of times, with the last three years defined by requests for changes that made his car worse. Frustration doesn’t sit well with Earnhardt; once there’s agitation, things can spiral rapidly downhill. Earnhardt needs a delicate balance of cheerleader and taskmaster, one Hendrick hopes he’s found in Letarte, who called the shots for Jeff Gordon in 2010. Gordon and Letarte had an ugly year, defined by poor pit calls that cost them wins. And with former crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and Letarte holding similar personalities, is buddy/buddy really the answer for a driver who’s only excelled with a disciplinarian like father figure Tony Eury Sr. on top of the pit box?

The Letarte partnership means Earnhardt moves up the hill at the Hendrick complex this year, taking over what was Gordon’s team and chassis. He and Letarte will be paired with champion teammate Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. The two teams collaborate heavily, and Earnhardt’s driving style is more similar to Johnson’s than former shopmate Mark Martin’s. If the teams can work closely, Earnhardt will benefit from their vast knowledge, a truly enviable position when coupled with the quality of Hendrick chassis and engines.

Despite his woes in 2010, Earnhardt finished all 36 events, the best among the Hendrick stable and a reminder that he still takes care of equipment. Plenty of support remains from sponsors AMP Energy Drink and the National Guard, as well as his huge fan base.

The difficult part will be to sort these changes out quickly. There was little rhyme or reason to Earnhardt’s 2010 season. The only places where he showed real consistency were Daytona and Loudon, two vastly different tracks. The logical place to start will be the intermediate program, but short tracks, road courses and even restrictor plate strategy must be addressed.

The question at Hendrick is how many people still genuinely believe in Earnhardt, whose contract runs through 2012. Clearly, the owner feels he’s now given the driver everything needed to make it work. It’s now a matter of whether Earnhardt’s style is simply a round peg that will never fit inside an organization of Hendrick squares.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

The term that best describes Dale Jr. is “stressed out.” “He’s got the world’s biggest monkey on his back,” says a rival crew chief. “(New crew chief) Steve Letarte may help him shed that monkey. Stevie’s good at building confidence, and he may be exactly what Junior needs.”

Another crew chief says, “OK, it’s established that he’s got the ability to win races, so why can’t he do it anymore? The losses have piled up on him. He’s got to find his self-confidence.”

Another says, “I’m not so sure about that. If he’s choking under pressure, then he’s fooling me. I just think you’ve got have the right combination, and he hasn’t really had it since ‘Pops” (Tony Eury Sr.) worked with him. He’s got to find another combination that really works, and half the guys in this sport are in the same boat. It’s nothing like as simple as people on the outside think.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Despite all the plate talk, Richmond is statistically a better play.
Pretty Solid Pick: OK, the plate tracks: Some of the magic is gone, but the ability is still there.
Good Sleeper Pick: He may not win Bristol, but he can still click off top 10s.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Homestead and Infineon are the only tracks where he’s failed to score a top 10.
Insider Tip: The CoT has really thrown Junior for a loop. We’ll see if Steve Letarte’s presence makes a difference.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 3
Top 10s: 8
Poles: 1
Laps Led: 185
Laps Completed: 10,710
Lead Lap Finishes: 24
Bonus Points: 40
Races Led: 7
Average Start: 19.0
Average Finish: 18.6
After First 26 Races: 19th
Final Points Standing: 21st
Driver Rating: 75.7 (22nd)
 

Teaser:
<p> Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. clocks in at No. 14 in Athlon Sports' 2011 Top 30 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 3, 2011 - 10:09
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-15-mark-martin
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Lance McGrew

Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 2nd (1990, ’94, ’98, ’02, ’09)

Hometown: Batesville, Ark.
Born: January 9, 1959


2011 Spin
Is the best driver in NASCAR without a title simply a lame duck in 2011? Mark Martin enters his third and final year at Hendrick Motorsports knowing the No. 5 Chevy will be passed to Kasey Kahne in 2012, and historically, that hasn’t been a good omen for drivers. But Martin has been here before — two past retirement announcements (2005-06) never fazed his Roush Racing team, despite knowing the end was near. Now, with what appears to be his last full-time effort finally at hand, Martin enters 2011 just as hungry as he was when he first strapped into a Cup car a full 30 years ago.

Car owner Rick Hendrick says that his commitment to Martin remains unchanged, asserting in a November press conference that the 52 year-old driver would get the same commitment Hendrick has towards the other three teams in his stable. “He’s not getting the short end of the stick,” the owner assured. “He’s going to get all the stick he wants.”

But is that verbal assessment accurate? After ending the season with momentum, reestablishing a special chemistry with head wrench Alan Gustafson that led to five wins and a runner-up points finish in 2009, Martin will start anew in 2011 after Hendrick made sweeping driver/crew chief changes to three of his four cars. Moving over to the former No. 88 stable, Martin gets crew chief Lance McGrew, who has just one Cup Series victory to his credit. In addition, the “new” No. 5 chassis he inherits scored just two top-10 finishes in the last 18 races of 2010, a far cry from the gains the “old” No. 5 team made in scoring two top 10s in its last three races alone.

To be fair, Martin gets reunited with some familiar faces from that ’09 campaign, crew members taken in an effort to kickstart Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s listless tenure at HMS. Most notable is engineer Chris Heroy, reassembling a perfect pairing of technical excellence with the most knowledgeable chassis driver in the sport. And he’ll have a new shopmate in four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who moves into the new “5/24” building on the Hendrick campus. Both veterans, the two should work well together and be able to share information successfully. Durability is also strong, as Hendrick engines caused zero mechanical DNFs for Martin in 2010.

Hendrick’s 10 championships do count for something, allowing a driver with an AARP card to gain funding in a business dominated by young guns. Martin will have sponsorship from CarQuest, Delphi and GoDaddy.com once again along with Quaker State. However, this car’s financial backing remains the worst of the four HMS entries, causing a troublesome hierarchy.

Martin’s best asset as a driver is his ability to win races while driving cleanly — so cleanly, in fact, he was criticized earlier in his career for not being aggressive enough. When push comes to shove, Martin usually doesn’t shove, a philosophy that eliminates controversy. But while that has earned him the respect of the garage, it also causes him to be run over from time to time.

Martin’s success became one-dimensional in 2010, as his best finishes came on flatter tracks like Martinsville, Loudon, Fontana and Phoenix. He’ll need to step up performance on the faster-banked ovals, remastering intermediates while navigating tricky restrictor plate waters.

Another thing to keep in mind: Hendrick has showered the veteran with distractions from the second his “full-time retirement” firmed up. After he signed Kahne in April 2010, his quest to find Kahne a ride led to a three-month inquisition as to whether Martin would step out of Hendrick a year early. Who knows what other bombshells may drop as that team prepares for 2012?

This year is likely Martin’s last, best shot to shed that title of best driver without a championship, but he’ll need all the pieces to come together early and often to make that happen. Otherwise, expect Hendrick to get Kahne on the brain all too quickly through a circus that ends with Martin a retirement sideshow.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Few drivers command more respect than the grand old veteran. “He’s probably the greatest driver never to have won a championship,” says an admirer in the garage. “I don’t know if the shakeup at Hendrick is going to help Mark. Lance McGrew is a sharp guy, but it will depend on the chemistry.”

A crew chief says, “Mark may have more concern for his team than anybody in the sport. He’s one of those guys who knows how to save his equipment. I think that’s a talent most of the younger drivers are never going to have to learn.”

Another says, “No one is more determined. Mark’s that rare driver who races hard every lap but not in a way that ticks everybody else off. Everybody knows where they stand with him.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Dude loves Dover.
Pretty Solid Pick: Phoenix has been his best track, statistically, since the advent of the CoT.
Good Sleeper Pick: No wins at Pocono, but he’s a virtual lock for a top 10 twice a year.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Hasn’t won in 51 starts at Daytona. Actually, he did in 2007, but NASCAR (for once) didn’t throw the rag.
Insider Tip: His unequaled chassis knowledge paired with his old engineer, should pay off on the big intermediates this year.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 7
Top 10s: 11
Poles: 1
Laps Led: 148
Laps Completed: 10,646
Lead Lap Finishes: 24
Bonus Points: 65
Races Led: 12
Average Start: 14.9
Average Finish: 15.3
After First 26 Races: 15th
Final Points Standing: 13th
Driver Rating: 82.8 (16th)
 

Teaser:
<p> NASCAR's wily old vet, Mark Martin, leads his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team into the top 15 of Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 - 11:23
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-16-kurt-busch
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge
Team: Penske Racing
Owner: Roger Penske
Crew Chief: Steve Addington

Years with current team: 6
Under contract through: 2014+
Best points finish: 1st (2004)

Hometown: Las Vegas, Nev.
Born: August 4, 1978


2011 Spin
Look up the word “underrated” in the dictionary and you just might see Kurt Busch’s picture next to it. The older of NASCAR’s two Busch brothers, Kurt is often overshadowed by younger brother Kyle, the ultra-talented but hotheaded sometimes-villain of the Cup Series. But make no mistake — Kurt also has the talent, carrying with it his own baggage of temperamental behavior. Busch blew through NASCAR in his early years like a tornado, leaving damage and frustration in his wake despite winning a championship before calming down through a Penske Racing partnership that began in 2006.

The on-track maturity made him a darkhorse during his three Chase appearances in the last five years. Busch was even a trendy pick to unseat Jimmie Johnson in 2010, but despite a solid rapport with crew chief Steve Addington, he bombed in the playoffs. Some claim Penske’s approach for the 2011 postseason needs to change, with the team failing to roll out the new chassis combinations that Hendrick and, more recently, Gibbs have thrived on late in the year. The organization thinks the “status quo” is better, except that’s not true with the CoT. Every slight innovation on the body, however risky, can translate into precious tenths on the track a driver can’t make up in practice with old equipment.

“We need to get a better balance on the car,” Busch said of his 2011 Dodges. “For us, it comes down to getting the front end to work better in the center of the corner.”

That’s a far more balanced statement than his brother, or even the 2005 version of Kurt, would ever give in the face of failure. In public and on the track, this veteran, by and large, races smarter than he used to, keeping him in the good graces of his competitors. That’s no small thing. Busch has raced with more respect — and been treated with more respect — in recent years than in the past, even in his 2004 championship season.  

This year opens a new chapter of sorts for Busch. He’ll stay with Penske Racing, where he has eight of 22 career wins and at least one each year since joining the organization, moving from the “flagship” No. 2 Miller Lite machine to the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge. Don’t think for a second that’s a demotion; Busch is the guy his new backer wanted, spurning Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress to pair with Penske and his automotive empire in April 2010.

The move leaves Busch with a solid formula: strong financial backing, a car owner dedicated to winning, full factory support from Dodge and a technically brilliant crew chief in Addington, who knows a thing or two about high-maintenance drivers. Under the right circumstances, you have a team that can win, and win often.

However, even the new and improved Kurt Busch can be a handful in private. He often berates his crew on the radio and at the shop, and that can spiral easily into a vicious cycle, because when the driver chooses to criticize instead of communicate, the team can’t fix the problem. A strong start to the race is crucial for Busch, as he struggles to recover in events after taking a step backward.

That teamwork approach is something that has been lacking at Penske, whose No. 2 car has been carrying the organization for years. Busch’s teammates are relatively inexperienced in NASCAR, as Brad Keselowski paired a Nationwide title with ineffective performances in Cup last year. Add in Sam Hornish Jr.’s ineptitude, and Busch had one fewer wins (two) than that duo had top-10 finishes (three). With Hornish unsponsored for 2011, trimming down to two cars — the only full-time, fully funded Dodges — could provide too little information. Considering Penske is switching to Chevy engines for its IndyCar program in 2012, it may lead to a change on the stock car side in the future, and distractions within a program that won’t have Daytona on the brain.

Busch enters 2011 as a proven Chase-worthy driver, but also an underrated commodity. He’s got a long row to hoe, as several other teams ramped up performance in late 2010 while Busch’s team grew stagnant. That can’t happen this year. If Busch can find the consistent focus that eluded him last year, he’s a Chase contender — particularly if he can pick up a couple wins in the regular season. If distracted, he’ll be on the outside looking in.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

The older Busch brother has had much of his thunder stolen by the younger, but Kurt has earned more respect in the garage. “He’s a past champion,” says another crew chief in the 2009 Chase. “Kurt is a force to be reckoned with as a driver, and last year that team started the season looking like a real contender. It didn’t work out at all in the Chase, but I think Kurt and Steve Addington make a great combination.”

A fellow crew chief says of Addington, “He’s a good crew chief for a veteran driver. Steve’s patient, works hard and knows how to lay down the law if need be. But working with a driver is ‘give and take’ with him, and that kind of crew chief is what Kurt needs.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Looked particularly strong on the intermediates last year ...
Pretty Solid Pick: ... but is so versatile, it could be the shorts or the flats in 2010.
Good Sleeper Pick: Hasn’t won on a plate track yet, but he’s got a knack for missing the big wreck.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Will have to battle Kansas twice this year.
Insider Tip: Busch manages to collect a couple of wins every year one way or another. His four victories the last two years have come on the 1.5-milers.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 2
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 17
Poles: 2
Laps Led: 842
Laps Completed: 10,540
Lead Lap Finishes: 25
Bonus Points: 95
Races Led: 17
Average Start: 11.1
Average Finish: 15.3
After First 26 Races: 5th
Final Points Standing: 11th
Driver Rating: 91.0 (10th)
 

Teaser:
<p> The 2011 Athlon Sports Driver Countdown continues with Kurt Busch and new sponsor Shell-Pennzoil. Busch slots in at No. 16 in the preseason predictions.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 - 10:53
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-17-jeff-burton
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Todd Berrier

Years with current team: 8
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 3rd (2000)

Hometown: South Boston, Va.
Born: June 29, 1967


2011 Spin
If 2010 was a season of “almosts” for Jeff Burton, will 2011 be “now or never”? For Burton, time is running short for a championship, and he has a lot of teams to climb over to get there. The 43-year-old is in the final year of his contract with Richard Childress Racing, a make-or-break season in a sport where 40-somethings find the unemployment line in record numbers.

Most frustrating for the garage’s unofficial driver spokesman is a troubling inability to find Victory Lane, an ugly zero during a season when RCR put all three of its cars in the Chase. Burton’s 539 laps led were the highest total for him in four years, but an inability to close the deal headlines a 77-race winless drought, a number that needs to change for him to be considered a serious contender. There was the flat tire at Martinsville in March, running over the air hose at Darlington in May and bad pit calls at Loudon not once, but twice. All these incidents went against Burton’s longtime career philosophy of putting himself in position for victories. Instead, self-inflicted wounds bulldozed the Caterpillar Chevrolet.

“We have to have better pit stops,” he said unequivocally in November. “I have to do a better job at making decisions on the race track. Todd (crew chief Berrier) has got to do a better job at making decisions on the pit box. I really think that we can go fast enough to win the championship next year, but ...”

A trail of “what ifs” haunts a man who once seemed primed and ready to assume the role now filled by Jimmie Johnson. Still, the leader of the RCR organization will once again enjoy a prime opportunity for success. He’ll carry Caterpillar, a longtime NASCAR sponsor whose contract is also up after 2011, on the sides once again. Berrier, in his second season with the No. 31, along with the core crew of mechanics and engineers will also return. If Berrier has a fault, it’s the tendency to tune out a driver’s wishes, but that hasn’t been as big of an issue with the veteran Burton.

The duo also has an organization behind them that knows how to win. Childress backed six championship teams with Dale Earnhardt and has 94 victories over 37 years in the sport as an owner. He remains as committed as ever, and his teams retain the best horsepower in the business with Earnhardt-Childress Racing engines.

Such stability combined with a veteran’s experience usually pays off on-track, where Burton is often given the benefit of the doubt in situations that would have the competition hot under the collar. A Mark Martin-like driver, he’s earned that label from a career of knowing when to use a bumper and when to back off, both literally and figuratively, in his dealings with NASCAR and the competition. In the end, that means consistency, perhaps his greatest asset: Burton has registered four DNFs or fewer in all but two of his last 15 seasons in Sprint Cup. Still “old school,” he drives in a conservative yet effective way that, until five years ago, still worked.

In 2011, though, Burton will need more than a methodical approach to take that final step. With parity among top teams at an all-time high, he’s up against 20 others that can run off a string of victories. No Chase champion has taken the title with fewer than three, a number Burton has never posted during his seven previous years with RCR. It seems a change of philosophy is needed. Burton needs to be more willing to do whatever it takes to win, even if that means making the competition angry. As proven by Jeff Gordon, zero victories and a slew of top-5 finishes aren’t enough to automatically attract the sponsorship and long-term commitments needed to stay in the sport.

Perhaps we got a preview last October that such a change was in order. A scuffle with Gordon at Texas highlighted a Chase in which Burton refused to go down quietly. It was a reminder to anyone watching that he still has the fire and the will to win, and he’ll need that in 2011, because the competition will be stiffer than ever.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Burton is the closest thing NASCAR has to a voice of reason. “He’s one of the drivers I respect the most in the business,” says a crew chief. “Here’s a guy who was struggling and getting up in years, and he rejuvenated his career. Burton’s as mentally tough as they come. RCR has really come back. They’ve got great horsepower, great cars, but I’d be willing to bet some of that improvement came about from having Burton around.”

Another says, “Burton has a great knack for holding things together. He’s a guy who’s been around and really uses all that knowledge, that experience, he’s picked up along the way.”

A third crew chief says, “I don’t think Burton gets enough credit for his driving ability. Most of what you read is about his personality, but he’s as competitive as it gets. He’s definitely one of those drivers who gets the best out of his car.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: A pair of runner-up showings in Dover last season was encouraging.
Pretty Solid Pick: JB has averaged an 11.4-place finish in 28 trips to Darlington. That’s impressive.
Good Sleeper Pick: Could make some early season noise in Sin City. He’s done so twice before.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: One top-5 finish in 17 Infineon starts? No thanks.
Insider Tip: His consistency is unquestioned, but he won’t deliver a ton of wins. A return to 2006-08 form would be nice.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 6
Top 10s: 15
Poles: 0
Laps Led: 539
Laps Completed: 10,556
Lead Lap Finishes: 30
Bonus Points: 95
Races Led: 17
Average Start: 16.6
Average Finish: 15.1
After First 26 Races: 8th
Final Points Standing: 12th
Driver Rating: 96.2 (6th)
 

Teaser:
<p> NASCAR veteran Jeff Burton and his Richard Childress Racing team clock in at No. 17 in Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 - 10:37
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-18-ryan-newman
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 39 U.S. Army/Tornados Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
Owner: Tony Stewart/Gene Haas
Crew Chief: Tony Gibson

Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 6th (2002, ’03, ’05)

Hometown: South Bend, Ind.
Born: December 8, 1977


2011 Spin
As a shy 25-year-old out of Indiana, NASCAR’s introverted intellectual was the sport’s hottest commodity. Ryan Newman won the 2002 Rookie of the Year and followed it with a sophomore season that was anything but a slump, scoring eight wins and an eye-popping 11 poles. It was only a matter of time, it seemed, until the Purdue graduate reached the top with powerhouse Penske Racing. Surely, he would win a title before 2002’s rookie runner-up, Jimmie Johnson. Right?

Fast-forward to 2011, and the now-33-year-old Newman has seen those tables turn. As Johnson has risen to the pinnacle of success, Newman is searching for the right direction on his career GPS. The only thing remaining red hot about this man is his temper, as Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne found out during awkward post-race confrontations last fall.

As he enters his third year with Stewart-Haas Racing, putting a cap on that frustration seems to be the key to Newman’s future. After two ugly Talladega wrecks in two years, he’s gone on a personal crusade against plate racing, hammering NASCAR to the point that it levied a “secret fine” against Newman that publicly embarrassed both sides. At least in public, the enjoyment he sought so desperately upon leaving Penske in 2008 has eluded him.

“I told Tony, ‘I’m here to have fun. I want to have fun with you,’” he said in 2009. “That’s what racing hasn’t been a whole lot of for me lately due to the fact we had success in ’02, ’03, part of ’04, and since then it hasn't been as successful. I look forward to having fun again.”

Will those days ever come? SHR initially breathed new life into Newman, when he jumped to ninth in points his first year in the No. 39. However, inconsistency, combined with handling horrors, relegated his 2010 finish to 15th. Getting back to the top from there won’t be easy, simply because of his place in the pecking order. One could argue he’s sixth on a totem pole of chassis and engine alliances between four-car Hendrick Motorsports and two-car team SHR.

The man is smart enough to know his nemesis: inconsistency. Even in that brilliant 2003 campaign he fell victim to it, collecting 22 top-10 finishes that were offset by finishes of 22nd or worse in 11 others, including seven DNFs, and that ugly pattern remains.

So what does Newman have going for him? For starters, he and Stewart may be the closest set of teammates in the business. They work well together, and Newman was widely credited with the boss’ shocking 2010 summer turnaround. Second, Hendrick Motorsports’ hand-me-down equipment still holds its value. After all, HMS has produced six championships in the last decade, so the leftovers are certainly going to taste better.

Newman is also a mechanical engineer who understands how racecars work. Drivers have become specialized, and many have never poked their heads under the hood on their own cars like the rough ’n’ tumble sort of years gone by. Not only can Newman turn a wrench, he can also thoroughly analyze a car’s performance, maintaining a wealth of chassis knowledge.

But brain cells can’t substitute for cold, hard cash, and Newman’s team had to rely on co-owner Gene Haas’ automation company for funding in several 2010 events. That scenario will happen again, with Haas picking up at least a dozen races along with the U.S. Army’s 15 and Tornados’ half dozen (to be fair, the organization maintains that this car is financially sound). It’s not that his sponsors don’t back Newman 100 percent — it’s a worry that he doesn’t have sponsorship 100 percent of the time.

If he and crew chief Tony Gibson can get out of the starting gate quickly, they could surprise. Gibson is a veteran of nearly 30 years and no stranger to winning, having worked with Jeff Gordon and Alan Kulwicki in title runs.

Newman has something to prove in 2011. Competitive at both short tracks and flat intermediates, he must step up at both the banked 1.5-milers and plate tracks that prove disastrous for him. Mainly, though, Newman needs consistency to kick this career out of neutral.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Stardom is slip-sliding away from Newman. “I think this is a big year for Newman and for his future with Stewart-Haas,” says a prominent crew chief. “I think he needs a good solid year — more than one win, make the Chase — or else he’s going to grow weary of playing second fiddle to Tony Stewart.”

“Remember,” says another, “Ryan Newman is the guy who beat out Jimmie Johnson for Rookie of the Year in 2002. You’ll never get Newman to admit it, but I think, at some level, that eats at him.”

A team owner says, “If he decides he wants to move along again, and I certainly don’t think he has, but he’ll find another good ride because, quite simply, he’s talented. There aren’t many people out there who ever won eight races in a single year (2003). And, by the way, Tony Stewart ain’t one of them.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: No wins at Darlington yet, but Newman has eight finishes of ninth or better in 12 starts.
Pretty Solid Pick: He’s a top-10 performer at Bristol.
Good Sleeper Pick: Not known for his road-racing prowess, but in actuality, the results aren’t bad.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: The Brickyard hasn’t made for a good home-track advantage for this Hoosier.
Insider Tip: Top 10s are always a possibility with Newman, but the wins are becoming fewer and fewer.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 1
Top 5s: 4
Top 10s: 14
Poles: 1
Laps Led: 63
Laps Completed: 10,522
Lead Lap Finishes: 28
Bonus Points: 40
Races Led: 8
Average Start: 11.9
Average Finish: 15.7
After First 26 Races: 13th
Final Points Standing: 15th
Driver Rating: 82.2 (18th)
 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown marches on, with the U.S. Army's Ryan Newman and his No. 39 team in at No. 18.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 - 10:30
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-19-juan-pablo-montoya
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 42 Target Chevrolet
Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Owner: Chip Ganassi/Teresa Earnhardt
Crew Chief: Brian Pattie

Years with current team: 5
Under contract through: 2011+
Best points finish: 8th (2009)

Hometown: Bogota, Colombia
Born: September 20, 1975

2011 Spin
After making a surprising leap into the ranks of the Chase in 2009, Juan Pablo Montoya and the No. 42 team had targeted another bid in 2010, but came up far short of that goal despite a career year from teammate Jamie McMurray. How did the world’s fastest Colombian win last year’s Fallback 500? One quick glance at the stat sheet gives an easy answer. In ’09, Montoya was running at the end of all 36 races. Last year, he failed to finish eight. So why the big difference? Bad luck? Faulty equipment? Over-aggression? Or is Montoya still feeling growing pains adjusting to stock car racing?

The first two are racing obstacles any driver has to deal with, so that doesn’t set Montoya apart. His talent is undeniable; the former open-wheel veteran acclimated himself to big, beefy stock cars sooner than most thought he would as evidenced by his two wins and five poles in his relatively brief career. So that leaves over-aggression as the culprit in the decline.

At times, Montoya’s emotions continue to cause distractions, and he doesn’t act in his best interests on the track and off it when dealing with his fellow Sprint Cup drivers.
One in particular is his teammate, McMurray. The two have a history, stemming from an incident at Bristol a couple years back that makes them NASCAR’s version of The Odd Couple. Things got so bad at Las Vegas in late February after McMurray caused both of them to wreck that Montoya’s wife tweeted in Spanish that McMurray was driving like a giant chicken. But like it or not, they have to find a way to co-exist, as each one is expected to stay over the long term.

McMurray is not the only driver on Montoya’s “hit list,” either. There was an on-track brouhaha with Mark Martin at Chicago, where Montoya offered to give Martin driving lessons. And there was the ugly season-finale when he made contact with Joey Logano. That ended with Montoya getting wrecked under caution in a burst of retaliation. Of course, when you talk to the man he’ll often say none of those incidents was his fault. But bottom line: A driver with a “take no prisoners” attitude has been taking himself out all too often in the process.

“(In 2009), we made the Chase,” he said last October. “This year, we had a lot of wrecks. I think we had the speed to make it, but we didn’t and it’s a bit of a shame. It is what it is.”

The problem with those comments is there’s seemingly no initiative on Montoya’s part to change either his style of driving or his attitude. It’s a worst-case scenario for a team that needs its driver to recognize mistakes — the ugly truth that with eight, nine, 10 wrecks per season, you can’t be the innocent victim in every one.

Montoya’s poor performance is even more shocking when you consider how well he qualifies. An 11.6-average start trailed only Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch in 2010. The No. 42 car once qualified eighth or better in 11 consecutive races, but in that same stretch, finished only two of those in a higher spot — once in winning at Watkins Glen, the other a seventh-place finish after starting eighth at Bristol.

On the plus side, the team enjoys stability from Chevrolet, spurning Ford for 2011, while crew chief Brian Pattie leads a talented returning group of over-the-wall veterans. And just 35, Montoya should be at, or slowly reaching, his prime.

Going forward, the big question seems to be whether Montoya can let his racing do the talking, not his mouth or emotions. Wrecked racecars and tirades certainly aren’t going to put points on the stat sheet, after all. How he handles the adversity will be a gauge on whether or not 2009’s Chase appearance was a sign of things to come or simply a flash in the pan.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Montoya is as highly regarded for his talent — no, his brilliance — in NASCAR as he was in Indy cars and Formula One. But the results haven’t been there. “No one has bad luck all year,” says a crew chief. “It all evens out, but not for Juan Pablo. He won a race, but it was on a road course and that’s where he’s supposed to win. His talent is undeniable, but I’m not sure his judgment has improved in four years. A stock car racer has to learn how to pick his spots, and I’m not sure Montoya ever will.”

Another says, “God, I could watch that guy race all day every week. I can’t tell you why he doesn’t win more. He’s not your typical road racer come to NASCAR. He’s got the skill to win at any track.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: The roadies, of course.
Pretty Solid Pick: JPM has gotten pretty good at playing chess on the plate tracks.
Good Sleeper Pick: Atlanta, where that Earnhardt-Childress horsepower pays dividends.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Vegas, one of only two tracks (Homestead being the other) where Montoya has not notched a top 10.
Insider Tip: After two near misses, he’s going to get a Brickyard trophy soon.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 1
Top 5s: 6
Top 10s: 14
Poles: 3
Laps Led: 411
Laps Completed: 10,217
Lead Lap Finishes: 22
Bonus Points: 95
Races Led: 17
Average Start: 11.6
Average Finish: 18.0
After First 26 Races: 16th
Final Points Standing: 17th
Driver Rating: 90.9 (11th)

Teaser:
<p> Jaun Pablo Montoya slots in at 19th in Athlon Sports' Top 30 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Monday, January 31, 2011 - 10:23
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-20-brad-keselowski
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge
Team: Penske Racing
Owner: Roger Penske
Crew Chief: Paul Wolfe

Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2012+
Best points finish: 25th (2010)

Hometown: Rochester Hills, Mich.
Born: February 12, 1984

2011 Spin
NASCAR 2010 was the rebirth of the Bad Boy in NASCAR, and right at the forefront of the “Boys, Have at It” movement was one Brad Keselowski. The second-generation racer from Michigan has had some noteworthy tangles in his short career, including scuffles with some of Sprint Cup’s biggest stars in Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. That he isn’t afraid to stare down anyone in the sport is both a bane and blessing for the 26-year-old, who roars into 2011 with the confidence of a Nationwide Series title under his belt.

“That championship lays a foundation for success,” he says of succeeding in the second-tier division. “It’s a brand of excellence that carries way more than just your own confidence or even ability. It carries into attracting and keeping top talent that can help you get to (the next) level in Cup.”

That on-track development, combined with a fiery independence, allows Keselowski not to be pushed around on the racetrack, unlike talented young peer Joey Logano. He isn’t going to back down if there is a win to be had, and that could be a huge advantage for Keselowski as he moves into the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge this year — a ride that has been piloted by known hotheads for 20 seasons. After being driven by Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch, the Blue Deuce is almost expected to be at the center of something big.

On the other hand, Keselowski isn’t making a lot of friends, and that can get lonely fast in the Cup Series. It also paints a target on his back, and, deserved or not, that’s not something that helps a guy get a great points finish. The wreckers or checkers philosophy will win some races, but it rarely brings season-long success in a Cup Series where consistency is as important as ever. Aggression requires a certain measure of give-and-take, and Keselowski hasn’t yet mastered the “give” part of the equation. His five DNFs in 2010 — all for wrecks — were more than double the two top-10 finishes he recorded.

What he does have going for him in 2011 is a dedicated sponsor and car owner. The Miller Brewing Company has as much tenure as any sponsor in the sport, and as an organization, Penske Racing has enjoyed 58 NASCAR wins with two teams in the last 20 seasons.

Also in his favor is the promotion of his NNS crew chief, Paul Wolfe, to the Cup operation. The chemistry between the two is unmistakable — the Nationwide title is proof of that — and Wolfe is viewed as one of the can’t-miss up and coming crew chiefs in the garage. As an added bonus, Penske’s motors have been some of the most durable in NASCAR in recent years (the organization suffered only a single engine failure in 2010).

Dodge is also dedicated, albeit shorthanded in the number of teams it supports. The manufacturer has all its eggs in Penske’s basket, although the future partnership of the two can be questioned with Penske’s upcoming Chevy commitment in IndyCar. Finally, the fact that Penske took team-building advice from Keselowski when he arrived from the Hendrick fold says a lot for the driver’s level of talent and understanding of what makes a team successful. The Nationwide program, an expanded workforce in the shop and engineering improvement can all be attributed to Keselowski’s consistent nagging to change the team’s internal culture.

Now, it’s time for the driver himself to mature. His hot temper puts him in some bad situations. One such incident last year came at Atlanta, where a perceived slight of Edwards resulted in Keselowski’s launching into a spectacular airborne flip.

One thing that needs to be questioned is Keselowski’s commitment to a full Nationwide Series schedule in 2011 — regardless of the rules. Historically, this has hurt drivers’ Cup efforts more than it’s helped, and in Keselowski’s case, some festering feuds have had their roots in that series. While a few double-duty drivers have successfully made the Chase, they haven’t won Cup titles. And with the Miller Lite backing carrying sky-high expectations with it, Keselowski may need to make a decision in the near future about where his dedication lies, for 2011 will be a season in which he is tested at NASCAR’s top level — and he needs to pass.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Everyone is waiting for Keselowski to become regularly competitive in Sprint Cup. “It seems really important to Keselowski that he assert himself,” says a crew chief, “and that gets him in a lot of trouble at the Sprint Cup level. He’s got what it takes to be a championship contender, but I think he’s just got to learn to be at home and comfortable in Cup. It’s hard to say whether his struggles are driver or car, but my suspicion is that it’s car. Another year might make all the difference in the world.”

Another crew chief says, “He’s made some enemies by sort of acting like, ‘Hey, I’m not taking nothing off nobody,’ but now he’s got to realize, OK, he’s shown everybody he’s got some toughness. Now he’s got to settle down and act like he belongs.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: The plate tracks — particularly Talladega.
Pretty Solid Pick: The more physical the better. Watch him at Bristol and Martinsville.
Good Sleeper Pick: Surprisingly, the youngster runs well at Darlington. Not many do.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Not surprisingly, he’s still got a way to go to hang with the Cup boys on the road courses.
Insider Tip: He’s still learning the ropes and the team is still coming together. Use in select events only.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 0
Top 10s: 2
Poles: 1
Laps Led: 41
Laps Completed: 10,410
Lead Lap Finishes: 16
Bonus Points: 30
Races Led: 6
Average Start: 23.0
Average Finish: 22.4
After First 26 Races: 26th
Final Points Standing: 25th
Driver Rating: 65.1 (26th)

Teaser:
<p> Second-year Cup driver Brad Keselowski kicks off the top 20 in Athlon Sports' 2011 NASCAR Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Monday, January 31, 2011 - 10:19
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-21-kasey-kahne
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 4 Red Bull Toyota
Team: Red Bull Racing
Owner: Dietrich Mateschitz
Crew Chief: Kenny Francis

Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2014 with Hendrick Motorsports
Best points finish: 8th (2006)

Hometown: Enumclaw, Wash.
Born: April 10, 1980

2011 Spin
Perhaps Kasey Kahne should start seeking sponsorship from U-Haul, since he’s been doing a lot of moving in recent months, and another big move is on the horizon. A disgruntled Kahne, given a contentious release from Richard Petty Motorsports last October, will have only one year to build on a five-race stint with Red Bull Racing that ended last season.

Kahne’s future plans have already been announced; he was signed to replace Mark Martin at the No. 5 seat at Hendrick beginning in 2012 before a rare agreement with Red Bull Racing was reached. That leaves RBR as a temporary stop on the way to arguably the sport’s best team, a partnership where keeping all sides distraction-free will be a challenge.

“I see what Red Bull’s all about,” claimed Kahne after surprising with a pole at Homestead in last season’s finale. “I see how they do it. They have really good people. It’s just a matter of a little bit of direction, some leadership, and we’re working on that. We can be a strong team next year.”

One development tops the list of fixes: Kahne is reunited with crew chief Kenny Francis, who also made the exit from RPM, and they will be joined by several other teammates who were laid off from that downsizing company. The return of veteran leader Brian Vickers to RBR should also rejuvenate the effort, which suffered without him. Jay Frye is also a solid and respected GM, excellent at making the most out of modest resources.

Overall, the dedication and financial support are a far cry from RPM, where it never seemed the money and equipment were fully behind Kahne for much of his tenure. But considering the short stint at RBR, can this guy keep his attitude adjusted should things go wrong early? How he left the No. 9 team was ugly at best — a third brake failure caused Kahne to crash at Charlotte and leave the track before repairs were made to his Ford. Kahne said he wasn’t feeling well, but what led to his release was the fact that he was essentially caught in a lie, running in a 5K charity race the next morning.

So will Kahne flourish in his one-year stint with RBR? Don’t hold your breath. He’s heading to a different team that runs a different manufacturer — his third in three years — so the depth of knowledge shared may not be adequate for large-scale success. They may eke out a win or two, due to Kahne’s talent alone, which could conceivably net them a wild card Chase berth, but nothing more.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

The recurring phrase with Kahne is “lots of talent.” A rival crew chief notes, “What happens to Kasey next year bears watching because it’s not something that happens very often. He’s sort of being farmed out to Team Red Bull for one year, and nobody really knows how that’s going to work. I think (crew chief) Kenny Francis showed a lot of professionalism. Distraction is a potential issue, since this whole arrangement will close at the end of the 2011 season.”

Another crew chief says, “You’ve just got to wonder when, or if, things are ever going to work out for this guy. He’s got great talent. He’s a proven winner. He’s had more than his share of bad luck in things falling apart around him, but yet, he hasn’t had a thing to do with any of it.”

A third says, “It’s hard to believe, but right now, I think Kasey Kahne is actually underrated.”

2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 7
Top 10s: 10
Poles: 4
Laps Led: 350
Laps Completed: 10,309
Lead Lap Finishes: 21
Bonus Points: 60
Races Led: 10
Average Start: 13.5
Average Finish: 18.9
After First 26 Races: 18th
Final Points Standing: 20th
Driver Rating: 82.8 (15th)

Teaser:
<p> Kasey Kahne makes a one-year stop at Red Bull Racing before moving on to powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. Athlon Sports has Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis leading the newly re-christened No. 4 team to a 21st-place spot in the the 2011 Top 30 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Friday, January 28, 2011 - 11:23
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-22-brian-vickers
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 83 Red Bull Toyota
Team: Red Bull Racing
Owner: Dietrich Mateschitz
Crew Chief: Ryan Pemberton

Years with current team: 5
Under contract through: 2012
Best points finish: 12th (2009)

Hometown: Thomasville, N.C.
Born: October 24, 1983

2011 Spin
After a thrilling entrance into the 2009 Chase, Brian Vickers and his Red Bull Racing team had their sights set on a return to the playoffs in 2010 — but that was before fate intervened. Just 11 races into last season, Vickers was hospitalized with blood clots in his lungs and left leg. A pulmonary embolism caused by a hole in his heart would keep the 26-year old out of the No. 83 the remainder of the season.

Now, following a nine-month absence after recovering from open-heart surgery, Vickers is set to return to racing. “(Doctors) gave me full clearance for next year,” Vickers optimistically stated during a visit to Bristol Motor Speedway in August. “I will be back in (2011). I’m real excited about that. They feel I’m probably in the best shape of my life.”

But what shape will the team he was forced to leave be in when he makes his return?

Vickers will encounter a familiar face in crew chief Ryan Pemberton, who guided him to his first Chase berth in ’09 and to three top 10s in his brief, incomplete performance in 2010. Beyond that, there are plenty of new faces he’ll find in the Red Bull shop.

Gone is teammate Scott Speed, which isn’t much of a loss after another year of struggles, with Kasey Kahne hired to replace him. The addition of a teammate like Kahne in normal circumstances would be considered a welcomed addition, but this is a one and done deal for Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis, as both move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012. That will put continued instability and distraction into a Red Bull team that already had its share in 2010. The two-car organization combined for only three top 10s in Vickers’ absence, a rocky merry-go-round of driver disappointments that raise serious questions as to how quickly a rebound can occur.

With Vickers likely to be a bit rusty after a prolonged period away from the sport and Kahne’s departure already set in stone, look for this year to be another rebuilding one for Vickers and a No. 83 team that once had a bright future ahead of it. Once he gets in a groove, Vickers could again compete for a win here or there, but a return to Chase form so quickly appears to be a tall order.

What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Vickers’ return — he missed most of the season because of a medical problem involving blood clots that required heart surgery to correct — carries with it some uncertainty. One rival thinks the presence of Kenny Francis as teammate Kasey Kahne’s crew chief will have a positive effect on the whole Team Red Bull operation. “Francis will bring a lot to that whole operation, Brian included,” he says. “Vickers can drive a car as loose as anyone. He’s got a lot of talent. We’ll have to see how the time off affected him. It’s really a shame because, a year ago, it seemed as if he was coming into his own.”

Another crew chief says, “I don’t think the layoff is going to be a problem. Brian’s still young (27), he’s won races, he’s made the Chase (2009), and he’s dedicated to what he does for a living. He had a tough break. He’ll be back.”

2010 Stats
Starts: 11
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 0
Top 10s: 3
Poles: 0
Laps Led: 27
Laps Completed: 3,510
Lead Lap Finishes: 6
Bonus Points: 15
Races Led: 3
Average Start: 21.6
Average Finish: 20.0
Final Points Standing: 40th

Teaser:
<p> Brian Vickers missed a large part of last season, but returns to NASCAR competition with a clean bill&nbsp; of health in 2011. Vickers slots in at No. 22 in Athlon Sports' Top 30 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Friday, January 28, 2011 - 11:12
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/whats-points
Body:

NASCAR point changes underwhelm, miss mark

by Matt Taliaferro

Color me underwhelmed. And just a bit confused.

Ending weeks of speculation, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France announced changes to the sport’s points structure and Chase to the Championship format in a press conference at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday evening.

Chief among the changes is a revamped season-long points structure that awards 43 points to the race winner, 42 to second and decreasing to one point for the 43rd-place finisher. Drivers will also be rewarded a one-time-only, one-point bonus for leading a lap, one for the driver leading the most laps and a three-point bonus to the winner. Added up, the winner of any race can earn a max of 48 points.

As for NASCAR’s controversial 10-race Chase for the Championship, France laid out a new qualification system, wherein the top 10 in Sprint Cup points will make the Chase, but in an interesting wrinkle, the final two slots will now be filled by the drivers within the top 20 not already qualified with the most wins. Any ties will be broken by virtue of points earned.

Seeding for the Chase will again be based on number of wins, but qualified drivers will now be separated by three points instead of 10. The two "wild card" drivers that earned spots in the Chase will not be awarded bonus points for wins.

France initially stressed winning — as in drivers battling for weekly wins — as a driving force behind the changes.

"The fans have been clear, though, about one thing: They care about winning," France stated. "They don't want drivers to just be content with a good points day or a good run."

However, when prompted in a Q&A with the media afterward, he implied that Goal No. 1 was simplicity in understanding how drivers are rewarded points, not winning.

"This is a goal ... the most important reason is simplicity," he said. "And this allows us a way to communicate the standings. This is a very, I think, straightforward way to do that.

"We didn't make a fundamental change on winning. We've always had a balance, and we like that. We didn't want to change it too much. We have to be cautious. We still have 43 cars racing out there. We can't measure things just on wins alone."

NASCAR President Mike Helton echoed the latter sentiment, telling reporters that a balance must be struck between winning and consistency throughout a long 36-week season. And in the sanctioning body’s view, a possible six-point cushion between first- and second-place finishers on a weekly basis combined with two Chase slot filled by virtue of wins alone accomplishes that goal.

OK, fair enough. The win-and-you’re-in Chase wild cards discourage just being satisfied with "good points days." But the 43-1 points format, when closely examined, does not award winning any more than the former Latford system. In fact, it penalizes a bad day more than rewarding a good one. And isn’t encouraging drivers to race all-out for wins the real way to attract a television audience? After all, it’s all about winning at the end of the day. Always has been.

And at what point since the Latford system was instituted in 1975 has simplicity been an issue? It certainly has not been a sticking point with fans over the last few turbulent seasons that witnessed NASCAR implement a playoff-style title format that coincided with plunging television ratings and decreased at-track attendance. Was the Latford system antiquated? Yes, but antiquated and confusing have totally different meanings, and at no point has an uproar from the fanbase or media been focused on not understanding how points were paid.

France, though, cited the NASCAR Fan Council’s input and the sanctioning body’s perception that a tight points battle in 2010 was difficult to follow and explain.

"We definitely communicated with our Fan Council," he said. "And listen, we saw with Denny (Hamlin), Jimmie (Johnson), Kevin (Harvick), through (last) fall, you needed a mathematician at the end, and you still might to some degree. But it was complicated to follow that. You knew somebody was behind and whatever. This will be easier for our fans and for our announcers and others in the booth to cover what is at stake at any given time during a race or the season."

The mathematician quip is a gross overstatement, of course. Points between the three competitors were compiled and relayed in real time throughout the telecast of the final race at Homestead. Viewers don’t need a calculator when the numbers are presented to them and change instantaneously as cars make up or lose ground.

No, this restructuring is about NASCAR making a third tweak to the points system in eight years — a staggering number for any sport at any level — simply because it can (or cannot, as in "cannot quit tinkering"). Fans didn’t ask for an overhaul to the point system, they asked for a refined schedule, shorter races, an emphasis on winning, better television coverage and a close examination of whether the Chase was needed at all.

Instead, the fans — the true fans that have remained loyal despite a plethora of poor decisions made by the governing body over the last decade — had more unwanted change forced upon them. It was change directed at bringing in the coveted 18-34 year old demographic, not appeasing the loyalists that NASCAR so dearly needs. It was change along the lines of what took Darlington’s Labor Day date and blurred the lines between a brand-specific car and a "spec" machine. It was change directed at attracting a new breed of fan. And it was these changes that precipitated the most turbulent years the sport has experienced in decades.

So color me underwhelmed, because a premium could have been placed on winning and was not. And color me confused, because I cannot understand how the leadership of the sport has not learned from its mistakes of the last 10 years.

But I’m sure Larry McReynolds can explain to me the positive aspects of change for the sake of change, where illusion is more important than tangible progress.

Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattTaliaferro

Teaser:
<br />
Post date: Thursday, January 27, 2011 - 10:59
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-23-david-reutimann
Body:

Teaser:
<p> David Reutimann scored a win in what was otherwise a down year in 2010. His Michael Waltrip Racing team returns basically intact this season, coming in at No. 23 in Athlon Sports&#39; 2011 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Thursday, January 27, 2011 - 10:23
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-24-aj-allmendinger
Body:

Teaser:
<p> AJ Allmendinger and his Richard Petty Motorsports team are back from the brink of financial ruin with an influx of investor money. The 'Dinger slots in at No. 24 in Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Thursday, January 27, 2011 - 10:19
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-25-paul-menard
Body:

Teaser:
<p> Paul Menard joins Richard Childress Racing this season, in hopes of topping his career-best points finish from one year ago. Menard and the new No. 27 team place 25th in Athlon Sports&#39; 2011 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 - 11:18
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-26-regan-smith
Body:

Teaser:
Regan Smith and the Furniture Row Racing outfit look to build on an encouraging 2010. The upstart team slots in at No. 26 on Athlon Sports' 2011 Top 30 Driver Countdown.
Post date: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 - 11:11
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-27-bobby-labonte
Body:

Teaser:
Bobby Labonte and the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing team slot in at No. 27 on Athlon Sports' 2011 Top 30 Driver Countdown.
Post date: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 - 11:03
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-28-marcos-ambrose
Body:

Teaser:
Athlon Sports' 2011 Top 30 Driver Countdown continues with Marcos Ambrose and his Richard Petty Motorsports team, in at No. 28.
Post date: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 - 10:58
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-29-david-ragan
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 6 UPS Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
Owner: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Drew Blickensderfer

Years with current team: 6
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 13th (2008)

Hometown: Unadilla, Ga.
Born: December 24, 1985

2011 Spin
No offense meant to David Ragan, but he seems to have things a little bit backwards. Drivers are supposed to have a sophomore slump, then take off and improve for good. But for Ragan, a once-promising career has wound up mired in mediocrity, leaving the driver of the No. 6 UPS Ford with a 2011 ultimatum: Shape up or ship out.

A promising 2008 season — when he scored six top-5 finishes, 14 top 10s and a Chase near-miss of 13th in points — seems like a century ago. In the two seasons since, the 25-year-old has a combined five top-10 finishes compared to six DNFs in 72 starts since landing the money and marketing of one of the sport’s biggest sponsors. What’s happening here? Did Ragan suddenly forget how to drive, or does Roush’s internal engineering for the No. 6 car leave much to be desired?

Turns out it’s both — plus, bad chemistry at the crew chief position that killed confidence. Donnie Wingo took the helm from Jimmy Fennig for 2010 but only lasted until September, when Drew Blickensderfer became the latest man to hold the job starting at Dover. Ragan scored his third and final top 10 of the year with his new crew chief at Texas in early November, but no real change in performance was apparent after the move.

“We just didn’t have luck on our side,” Ragan said of this latest year to forget. “Nevertheless, looks like a good offseason for us.”

Sounds like an optimistic view in the face of a cold, uncertain reality. Bad luck can be the explanation for some of the poor runs, but two seasons’ worth? It’s obvious something else is going on here, whether it’s a driver who wasn’t as good as advertised or perhaps an organization stretched a bit too thin to make sure all four teams run evenly. Whatever the case, something has to change for the No. 6 — and fast. Insiders say owner Jack Roush had already considered releasing Ragan last summer, but couldn’t because of contractual obligations that kept him as the permanent driver for UPS. He’ll have no such restrictions this November, as that deal runs out at the end of this season; it means this once-developmental driver has to be looking over his shoulder at rising talents Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in Roush Fenway Racing’s Nationwide program.

You can bet that if the No. 6 can’t deliver on results this year, the driver, the sponsor, or both won’t be delivered back to RFR for 2012.

What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Ragan’s career is stalled — in reverse even — and Jack Roush isn’t particularly known for his patience. “In many ways, I think he’s come a long way,” says a crew chief. “He’s starting to assert himself on the track, but where he goes from here is anybody’s guess. When all the other Roush Fenway cars started moving up and getting more competitive, he couldn’t make much of a move.”

Another crew chief disagrees: “He’s gone backwards. When he first got to Cup, he was in over his head. Then he learned how to stay out of trouble. Now he’s got some pressure on him, and he’s in over his head again.” Another says, “I’d bet he’d be out by season’s end, if not before. My driver can’t stand racing with Ragan.”

2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 0
Top 10s: 3
Poles: 0
Laps Led: 13
Laps Completed: 10,541
Lead Lap Finishes: 21
Bonus Points: 20
Races Led: 4
Average Start: 22.5
Average Finish: 21.3
After First 26 Races: 25th
Final Points Standind: 24th
Driver Rating: 66.2 (25th)

Teaser:
Looking to rebound from a slumping 2010, Roush Fenway Racing's David Ragan is in at No. 29 in Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown.
Post date: Monday, January 24, 2011 - 12:25
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-30-david-gilliland
Body:

Teaser:
As Daytona approaches, Athlon Sports kicks off its 2011 Driver Countdown with David Gilliland, who comes in at No. 30.
Post date: Monday, January 24, 2011 - 12:18
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/10-tough-questions-part-5
Body:

As the 2011 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.

by Matt Taliaferro

9. What could NASCAR possibly have to gain by “secretly” fining Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman after Hamlin’s comments last year via Twitter concerning late-race debris cautions (among other things) and Newman’s damning assessment of plate racing at Daytona and Talladega?

To understand this, you must understand the antiquated line of thinking that pervades the sport’s leadership.

NASCAR wants controversy. It craves headlines. Since its January 2010 “Boys, have at it” edict, it has actually encouraged personality and outspokenness among its competitors. Unless, of course, that outspokenness is directed at the sanctioning body itself.

So when Hamlin admitted to being “secretly” fined $50,000 by NASCAR, the absurd rationale of the brass in Daytona was revealed. After all, how can a fine of this magnitude be levied in such a covert manner without the garage area — a place where rumors run rampant and some media members share a borderline unprofessional chumminess with the competitors — knowing about it.

Hamlin crossed the line in late July, insinuating that debris cautions were being thrown late in races to improve the show — basically stating that NASCAR was attempting to engineer exciting finishes.

Newman’s sin may have been more noble, but was viewed with no less consternation after a Talladega crash.

“No business owner would permit employees, vendors or partners to damage their business — nor can we,” NASCAR’s managing director of corporate communications, Ramsey Poston, said. “It is the sanctioning body’s obligation on behalf of the entire industry to protect the brand, just like every other major sport.”

Fair enough. You don’t work for me, but please don’t work against me, right? NASCAR is a sport that has to sell itself harder than ever to win the entertainment dollar of Joe and Jane Fan. When its legitimacy is called into question by a swarming media and on message boards by fans across the internet, the last thing it needs are its drivers fanning the flames of conspiracy and calling its credibility into question.

However, the way to handle those drivers is not by secretly penalizing them. The NFL, NBA or MLB may drop the hammer on its participants’ criticisms, but the crime and punishment are outlined in minute detail so players’ unions, ownership groups and fans are assured said punishment fits the crime. Not so, in this family-owned sport. No checks and balances — not without a players’ union. And nothing short of franchising will bring that into existence.

It’s situations such as these, when the sport’s benevolence could rule the day, reassuring its skeptics that any credibility issues can be put to rest, that NASCAR finds its long lost consistency. The problem is, the only consistency displayed is a relapse into an outmoded iron-fisted rule: “Boys, have at it on the track, but don’t you dare cross the line off it.”
 

Teaser:
As the 2011 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
Post date: Friday, January 21, 2011 - 14:34
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/10-tough-questions-part-4
Body:

As the 2011 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.

by Matt Taliaferro and Tom Bowles

7. Does NASCAR need to change its officiating style … and will it?

Like NASCAR, stick ’n’ ball sports aren’t immune to controversial calls. So why do stock car officials wind up with the worst rap? Simple: visual aides. NFL challenges, MLB instant replay on home runs and NBA shot clocks can help tell us whether a decision is right or wrong, leading to endless and exciting debates at the office the next day.

How can racing fans do that with, say, a season finale in which Kevin Harvick was busted for speeding, then accused Jimmie Johnson of sneaking by without so much as a warning? No media member or fan gets a look at pit road times, and all we see is a bunch of cars charging real slowly on the screen towards pit out. NASCAR refuses to publicly release those times, just like it won’t adequately explain a rules violation from Clint Bowyer that contains a top line that would make any politician proud.

Behold, Section 20-3: “The car body location specifications in reference to the certified chassis does not meet the NASCAR-approved specifications.”

What specifications? What tolerances? What in the world does that mean? You’d have to go through 16 pages to find out, in a rulebook not every Joe Schmo on the street can access. Considering NASCAR’s inauspicious history with penalty calls – just look at some of these other questions in the book for proof – it’s no surprise that this breeds suspicion in a transparent world where WikiLeaks, Facebook and Deadspin feed the public’s desire to know.

For generations, that’s how the France family has run NASCAR, a family-owned dictatorship with more secrets than Nixon and Watergate. But that needs to stop, pronto, if the sport wants to stop the bleeding of angry fans and nose-diving attendance. It’s time to drop the act, open the books and work to ensure that fans can believe in the legitimacy of officials’ calls.

And while the Boyer penalty is fresh on our minds …
 

Teaser:
As the 2011 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
Post date: Thursday, January 20, 2011 - 10:08
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/10-tough-questions-part-3
Body:

As the 2011 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.

by Matt Taliaferro and Tom Bowles

5. Are tweaks to the Chase format needed to bring interest back into NASCAR’s playoffs?

At this point, it’s tough to unequivocally say yes or no. NASCAR CEO Brian France’s fascination with “Game 7 moments,” repeated throughout 2010, drove talk of elimination rounds in the Chase that would encourage (read: engineer) a paper-thin title battle. When drivers, fans and media nearly universally decried the idea, an alternate concept was hatched.

An Associated Press report earlier this week suggested the sanctioning body is looking at a completely revamped points system that simplifies the points-payout structure and places a premium on both winning and consistency for Chase qualification. With the idea successfully leaked by NASCAR to the press, only time will tell how it’s received, thus the trial balloon is still in its ascension stage.

Regardless of whether this latest concept is enacted, the bottom line is the Chase has never found true acceptance in NASCAR fandom, despite France’s feigned ignorance to that very basic fact. As in any sport, the proverbial walk-off home run can never be guaranteed, no matter how much a ruling body attempts to manipulate the system to allow for it. And the more said body attempts to finesse the system, the less legitimacy is paid to the title. In this case, the governing body has made multiple changes not with the worthiness of the championship in mind, but with television ratings and ad revenue as the sole guiding factor.

So while there are a few modifications that may be welcome — ones that should have been a part of the Chase from the beginning, such as a bonus for the regular season champion or more points awarded for race wins — what’s truly needed is a revamped schedule that takes the circuit to the most exciting and electrifying venues NASCAR has to offer in the Chase. The 10 most exciting tracks should be showcased during NASCAR’s 10 most important weeks, not facilities grandfathered in due to their pre-Chase dates on the schedule or because they are struggling financially and need a boost (we’re looking at you, Chicagoland).

After all, great racing will always trump hokey pleas for ratings and half-hearted excuses for racetracks that do not provide the quality of racing deserving of a playoff date.
 

Teaser:
As the 2011 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
Post date: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 - 10:24
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/10-tough-questions-part-2
Body:

As the 2011 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.

3. If Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggles again this season, will he ask out of his contract a year early?

It doesn’t appear likely. Earnhardt and Hendrick casually mentioned that contract extension talks — Earnhardt is currently signed through 2012 — were in the near future just one week after the personnel shakeup at HMS that aligned Earnhardt with crew chief Steve Letarte in the new “48/88” shop. While that may be true, it may also be posturing, putting any sponsor’s apprehensions at ease while the company regroups and rolls out a new product in 2011. Any sponsorship negotiations attached to the Earnhardt name take a much more decided effort and additional diligence due to the asking price. Could the pair’s hinting at an early extension actually be step one in luring AMP Energy Drink and the National Guard back? Possibly.

Also, Earnhardt knows the resources currently behind him are unmatched. Hendrick Motorsports is the unquestioned powerhouse in the sport with 10 Cup titles in its trophy case and an all-star lineup that will only get bolstered in 2012 when Kasey Kahne comes on board (and that’s not to mention the relationship with Tony Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing operation). Really, it won’t get any better for Junior. Or Hendrick.

Despite three subpar seasons at HMS, Earnhardt brings in over $30 million per year in sponsorship revenue alone. Factor in merchandise sales (of which Hendrick gets a cut) plus over $14 million in winnings over the last three years, and the numbers say Earnhardt — win or lose on the track — is raking in just as much money for Hendrick as his new shopmate.

Still, does a blues jeans and t-shirt Earnhardt fit in a starched white-collar world at Hendrick Motorsports? It certainly doesn’t appear so, but for the time being he’ll remain where he’s at through at least 2012.
 

Teaser:
As the 2011 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
Post date: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 - 07:04

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